THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Kehinde Wiley

Skirball Cultural Center—Los Angeles

 

I was never a huge fan of Kehinde Wiley’s work, I have to admit. I saw the Obama portrait as illustrative, more like a painted photo. The paintings always seemed flat, with the figures and background strangely disconnected. With this bias in mind, I tackled the work with the supposition that first thoughts are not last thoughts and that the role of a writer is to elucidate, educate and, finally, to challenge and question one’s own assumptions and judgments.

The exhibition is at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. For those visiting LA, it is a stone’s throw from the Getty Center. Over the years, I would occasionally stop there as parking is free, the admission is moderate, and the center is easily accessible and quite pleasant. The Center focuses on cultural aspects of the Jewish experience and, as such, features diverse and varied programming as well as a permanent collection.

The Kehinde Wiley exhibit features two large paint-ings of Ethiopian Israeli Jews, as well as an accompanying video. The two works are respectively titled, Solomon Mashash and Benediter Brkou. Both titles reference the subjects of the portraits. These works are part of a larger series of paintings entitled the “World Stage,” featuring an international roster of portraits of mostly young black men throughout the world.

A short history of Israel would include the resettlement of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The “Beta Israel” were considered “Jews” and one of the lost tribes. Under the right of return, they were airlifted to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. Numbering more than 100,000, they are an ethnic minority in a country initially defined by European roots. This anomaly of identity is at the core of the work, as Kehinde’s portraits of two Ethiopian Jews provokes questions regarding culture, class, and identity.

Both figures in the painting are portrayed frontally, one as a full-length portrait and the other as a truncated figure. Each is wearing a t-shirts, with Solomon’s juxtaposed with the image of the lion and Benediter’s with a Magnum cartoon spanning his chest. The gaze of the subject orientates the point of entry into the work as well as the surrounding composition.

Brkou looks slyly into the camera with the figure shot from below. We look up as he looks down. In the classic sense, power and position are defined through posture and scale, and the stance is certainly embedded in the history of portraiture. Reciprocally, the more frontal portrait of Mashash seems softer and gentler, as the subject is shot directly and, although the figure is truncated, the gaze is more intimate and approachable. The symbol of the crown of the Torah hovers over his head and ties directly into the embellished wood frame. In this way, the work, although similar, is remarkably different, as each portrait has its’ own mood and personality.

The patterned backgrounds are both decorative and symbolic and reference symbols of Judaica as well as Hebrew text. Similarly, carved frames envelope the work and are capped with figures of lions, the Ten Commandments, and folded hands. In this case, pattern and symbol coalesce, giving the figures context and history. The stylization of background is perhaps also a nod to both Arabic and Judaic pictorial traditions as they historically had similar restraints on figurative depictions.

As a viewer, I was struck by how the paintings use portraiture to address some questions that superseded my formal concerns. The work tackled stereotypes and gave a broader interpretation of who is considered an Israeli. The depiction of two Ethiopian Israelis painted by a non-Jewish African-American artist creates a complicated dialogue between identity and nationality. In a country that can easily be “stereotyped” as homogenous, the representation of diversity creates a broader field for what is modern Israel and, ultimately, asks us to question Jewish identity.

Like the Magnum cartoon, the impact of globalization spans the horizon. We see these subjects as complex and unique individuals, crossed between culture, language, and history and their own individuality. This anomaly seems to be at the core of the work and presents a human aspect to those figures that might be marginalized. Through Kehinde Wiley’s gazing portraits, we see both the complexity and irony of contemporary Israeli culture.

If the work was not initially my taste, I can also state that the paintings have a clarity and directness that is provocative. The images linger and they bring something to the table that transcends their photographic source. The scale is arresting and the works have a confidence and single-mindedness that is hard to dismiss. If they are not John Singer Sargent, they are Kehinde Wiley. They speak of their time in both subject, source, symbol, bringing us forward and succeeding in asking us to look in new and unexpected ways.

 

Neil Goodman

 

Neil Goodman, (Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts) is a sculptor with a long exhibition and teaching history. He is currently preparing for a large-scale sculpture retrospective at the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Denver, opening next fall. He divides his time between studios on the central coast of California and in Chicago. He holds an MFA from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.

Kehinde Wiley, Benediter Brkou, 2011, Oil, gold and silver enamel on canvas, 95.75” X 71.75.” Photo by Neil Goodman.

Kehinde Wiley, Solomon Mashash, 2011, Oil on canvas, 72” X 60.125.” Photo by Neil Goodman.

 

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